What is a Short Bone?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A short bone is a bone with an approximately cuboid shape. These bones are as wide as they are long, in contrast with other types of bones like flat bones and long bones. Short bones can be found in the hands, wrists, knees, ankles, and feet. Fractures of these bones can occur as a result of sharp blows, falls, or degenerative disease leading to bone weakness. They are often challenging to treat, as it is difficult to set short bones and keep them stable while they heal.

A diagram of the anatomy of a bone.
A diagram of the anatomy of a bone.

The typical short bone has a very thin outer layer of compact bone and a large inner layer of spongy bone, containing ample bone marrow. The bone stabilizes and supports a joint and may articulate with several other bones. Short bones are not heavily involved in joint movement and can act to prevent a joint from moving too far, reducing the risk of injuring muscles, ligaments, and other bones.

Long bones, like the tibia and fibula, are those bones whose length exceeds their width.
Long bones, like the tibia and fibula, are those bones whose length exceeds their width.

The carpals and tarsals in the hands and feet are examples of short bones, as is the patella or kneecap. These parts of the skeletal system tend to be small, but not as small as sesmoid bones, the tiny units of bone found around some important joints. When they fracture, they may develop radiating cracks or split in two, depending on the type of injury. Fracture care for a short bone is difficult, as it can develop necrosis very quickly if the blood supply is interrupted. It may be necessary to perform surgery to pin the bone in place.

The precise shape and location of the short bones can vary between different people. Factors like genetics and development can play a role in how these bones form and in some people, a few short bones may be missing. In people with joint degeneration in the hands and feet, the short bones will be more fragile, and the patient's risk of fractures increases. People with chronic inflammation may experience erosion of the surface of a short bone along with other problems like an irregular blood supply.

If a patient experiences a problem with a short bone, an orthopedic surgeon will perform an evaluation, starting with medical imaging studies to look inside the patient's body. Patients may consult a foot and ankle or hand surgeon to receive the best care, as these physicians specifically focus on caring for patients with hand and foot problems and have a great deal of experience in this area.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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